Category: editorials

Notes on Approaching the Confucian Canon

Let me begin with something of a disclaimer. Though I’ve read all but one of the Four Books and Five Classics, and even written about some of them, I don’t consider myself an expert on Confucianism by any means. So take this post with a grain of salt, and expect it to be revised in the future as I read and reflect on the subject more. I’m writing it simply because I am asked occasionally how to approach the Confucian canon, so I thought it would be helpful to have a single place to point these people to, where I lay out some basic advice based on my experience.

Much as with choosing a translation of the Analects, which I’ve addressed previously, the main questions are how deep you want to go, and how much guidance you’d like. What I’ll do here is lay out which books you should read in the order I’d recommend reading them, with a few comments on each covering their main topic, availability, a link to my reviews where available, and whatever else may be relevant. Keep in mind that the reading order is a bit loose; for the Four Books I’m drawing from Chu Hsi’s recommendations given on this page.

If you just want the bottom line, I’d say if you just read one book it should be the Analects. If you want one more add Mencius, then the Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning together. Add An Introduction to Confucianism if you want the big picture, and The Everlasting Empire if you’re addicted to context. For the Five Classics, add the Odes if you’re interested in poetry, the Documents and Spring and Autumn Annals for history. Finally, add the Changes and Rites if you want to be a completionist.

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Notes on the Purpose of Poetry

Two weks ago we and Socrates met with Ion, a rhapsode and Homer’s greatest interpreter (in his own opinion). One question we touched on was whether poetry and rhapsody are arts, to which Socrates answered “No.” Rather, it’s a form of divine inspiration, which definition Ion was happy to roll with. However, that doesn’t seem to be true, for there certainly is an element of craftsmanship and skill involved with writing and reciting poetry, despite the occasional one-hit-wonder. Furthermore, even individual works, especially long ones like epics, are of mixed quality or at least mixed goodness. The Iliad, for instance, is a work of immense skill throughout, but at times portrays the gods in an impious manner, which seems very odd if it’s the work of inspiration by the gods. (As an aside, I am aware that all this isn’t Socrates final opinion on the subject, and that at least some of what he had to say was essentially said for Ion’s sake).

If poetry and rhapsody are arts, though, then what sort of art are they, and what is their end or purpose? We need to begin by defining some terms.

First, note that when Plato says “art” he’s using it in a broad sense. I won’t get into the Greek because I’m not familiar with that language, but since I’m writing for anglophones anyway we’ll proceed in my native tongue. In English we use “art” both to refer to any application of a learned skill, even in industry, as well as to production of a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes. So, poetry is an art in that it’s an application of a learned skill (metrical writing) in a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes.

Yes, I’m keeping it simple by defining poetry as “metrical writing.” Writers of free verse may be artists and authors of literature, but at least for our purposes they’re in a separate, though related, category. What is the purpose of poetry? I would answer that it is the creation of a work of beauty. So, what is beauty? Again, let’s keep it simple and follow this short article on St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the subject. Beauty is something that “elevate[s] man to the infinite,” in other words, toward God (don’t worry, we’ll flesh this out more shortly). We can see that it’s closely related, then, to goodness and truth, and for a work to be truly beautiful it must be good and true, as well. “Goodness” in this context, of course, does not mean merely inoffensive, but uplifting in some way, which often does involve a portrayal of evil in some manner. “Truth” will not usually be literal truth, but can also be allegorical.

So, we now have an idea of what poetry is, and what its purpose is. Rhapsody is the art of reciting poetry in an effective manner. Both have as their purpose focusing man’s mind on the transcendent, the good, true, and beautiful.

Socrates, no doubt, wouldn’t let me go that easily. Since this is a one-man show, though, I’ll have to raise my own objections, and the obvious one is this: does poetry actually do these things? If so, how? There have been many claims that it does; I’ve discussed Confucius’ previously, and also touched on Ben Jonson’s in that same article. We might also point to Scripture’s inclusion of many poems, most notably the Psalms but also throughout many of its other books. As far as appeals to authority go, then, we’re looking good, but that’s not quite enough. Confucius and Jonson are fallible, and Scripture’s poems aren’t just poems, but also prayers.

Regarding that last point, the Bible’s form and content aren’t arbitrary, and given the value of plain speech, it seems to me significant that the sacred authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, thought it most appropriate to set the Psalms, hymns, and so on in verse. Most of Scripture follows a simple style, often too simple for modern tastes, so when it uses poetry we may safely assume that this is because there’s something about poetic form that’s especially appropriate or effective on the reader that suits the author’s purpose. If poetry is the creation of a work of beauty, and beauty raises one’s mind to the transcendent, then this is as expected. The Psalms, etc., are written to do precisely that, and so they use a form that amplifies the effect of what they attempt to do.

If that’s the case, though, then shouldn’t all of Scripture, and for that matter pretty much everything else, also be written in verse? Not necessarily. The primary purpose of the historical and didactic books is to convey information. For example, the authors of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell us the narrative of the kingdom of Israel, while St. Paul in his Epistles tells us how we ought to live (primarily, of course – obviously, the same book can have multiple purposes and work on more than one level). This can be done in verse, but this type of information is best related in as straightforward and easy to follow a manner as possible. Additional ornament, though it may beautify the work, may also distract from the main points. Of course, this also applies to non-Scriptural works of history, philosophy, and so on, which typically are best presented in prose.…

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Against James Burnham’s Interpretation of Dante

Back in 2015, I wrote a commentary on Dante Alighieri’s political treatise Monarchia, in which he argues in favour of a universal monarchy. Though Dante’s ideal has never been attainable, his basic arguments are interesting and applicable to monarchism in general, which is why I believe it’s worth reading and was worth writing about. My commentary is undoubtedly the longest and most involved thing I’ve ever written, and because of this I occasionally get questions about it on ask.fm and Curious Cat. In particular, on CC I received this question a little while back asking about James Burnham’s interpretation of Monarchia, given in The Macchiavellians and reproduced at the blog Unqualified Reservations.

I was aware of Burnham’s essay while writing my commentary, but after some consideration decided not to bother even addressing it because, frankly, Burnham’s interpretation sucks. However, since Burnham and Unqualified Reservations are well-known in Right-wing circles, there are probably more people around this part of the world who’ve read Burnham’s essay than have read Monarchia, and so may have an inaccurate impression of Dante’s book. Several people in the UR comments do point out the essay’s flaws, but there’s more to say and not everyone reads comments. So, since I was directly asked about it and to offer a defense of Dante, I’ll go ahead and expand on my previous answer here. Note that I will assume that you’ve read the essay.

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An Ascent with Xenophon

I first heard of Xenophon and Anabasis while at college, in Bl. John Henry Newman’s great book The Idea of a University. In this particular essay, Newman gives an illustration of a poor applicant for university studies by giving a dialogue between a student and a tutor. This student does indeed stumble through the interview, able to give a basic summary of events in Anabasis but unable to answer questions about the etymology of the title and its significance, basic Greek grammar, and other such things. What struck me, though, was that Newman assumed that even a poor student will have read Anabasis, among other works from the Classical world, and have some basic knowledge of Greek and Latin. Indeed, in the printed essay, Newman does not even transliterate Greek words; he merely assumes that anyone reading would know the Greek alphabet.

Yet, here I was, a year or two into university studies, and I was clearly far less competent than even this student Newman describes as “below par.” I knew no Greek at all, and the name of “Xenophon” was merely a foreign sound to me, though I was at least aware of the other authors Newman mentions in the passage.

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How to Write About a Book

What does an author do for a semi-landmark like this, my 300th post? 300 is a somewhat ungainly number; it’s two too many hundreds to be special, but not halfway to a fourth digit like 500. It was made famous at Thermopylae, but a web log hardly merits a comparison to an event of that stature. Nonetheless, since it’s taken over nine years to get to this point, I’ll go ahead and take the opportunity to pat myself on the back – hooray for me!

Anyway, I don’t claim to be a particularly talented writer, but after so many posts, most of them reviews of some kind at this point, I can say that I’m comfortable writing and fairly confident in my ability to talk about books, fiction or non-fiction. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some advice with those who’d like to get better at writing and talking about literature themselves.

This subject will most interest students, of course, and perhaps others thinking of starting a literature blog, or maybe just members of a book club. I can honestly say, though, that writing has been immensely helpful in my own intellectual growth. I’ve written elsewhere that good art is something to be savoured, not scarfed down like fast food. The habits I’ve gained as part of running this blog have ensured that I digest what I read more fully, even for books that I don’t go on to review. So, I hope everyone will find at least some of my advice useful, and if you’ve given any thought to doing some writing of your own then by all means give it a shot, and don’t be discouraged if your early efforts turn out awkward. If you come away from this post with one main idea, let it be this: writing about literature (or non-fiction) is a learned skill, and like any other skill, you’ll only get good at it with practice.…

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Richard III, Reading Shakespeare, and Another Way to Fail at Kingship

William Shakespeare’s renown in the English-speaking world knows no bounds. He gets his own section in most libraries and bookstores, he’s assigned in every English curriculum, and in any major city there’s almost always a production of one of his plays going on at any time. Take a poll asking for the greatest poet, dramatist, or even general writer in English, and the Bard will win almost every time. In fact, he’s so famous that we don’t even need to call him by his name; just say “the Bard,” and people know who you’re talking about, like how St. Thomas Aquinas just calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

However, there’s also a phenomenon with Shakespeare similar to an observation C. S. Lewis once made about Scripture – if you tried to judge the amount of Bible-reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you’d be far off the mark. A lot of people never approach Shakespeare’s work outside of class assignments, and find him difficult for several reasons. A common one is his diction; coworker of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that he’d be more interested in Shakespeare if Shakespeare wrote in English. Of course, not only did he write in English, he wrote in Modern English, albeit early Modern English.

A good illustration of the difficulties people run into is the famous opening soliloquy in Richard III, which I just watched recently:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

As soon as people see this, I suspect many of them feel like they need to dissect it like a frog in biology class, as they were always required to do in school. “What’s the metre here? Any assonance or alliteration? There is a pun on ‘son’ and ‘sun’, I should mention that. Who is the ‘son of York,’ anyway? There’s also a lot of contrast between images in each lines…” and so on. Are you really supposed to get all of this?…

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Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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Why Do You Not Study the Odes?

Compared to 2015, I’ve spent much of 2016 so far writing more about literature. Those who started following this blog last year, when non-fiction covered the bulk of my material, at least aside from comics I used largely to pad out the 75 Book Challenge, may see this as a slight change of course. However, it’s a return to what I’ve always considered my primary academic focus, and honestly I think that my discussions of literature are more important than those on history or political science.

Now, I think that much of my audience is already sold on the value of good art, and has some appreciation of beauty. I know a lot of people in my online social circles who’ve given up on television, and in a few cases even on popular music. This is very good; I and most of my readership are on the Right, and the Right stands for order, and good art is conducive to that while bad art is corrosive of it. It’s worth noting that Reactionary blogs have, to a small extent, begun to write more about the arts. Nick B. Steves noticed this trend in a recent edition of This Week in Reaction, in which he was generous enough to include a link to my post on the Cavalier poets, and he attributed it partly to Chris Gale. E. Anthony Gray’s very worthwhile series on various poets like Goethe and Coleridge published on Social Matter is worth pointing out, as well, and of course Wrath of Gnon has been encouraging an appreciation for the beautiful for a long time on both tumblr and Twitter.

Nonetheless, the lesson still hasn’t quite sunk in in many quarters. The overwhelming focus among Reactionaries is politics, some political theory, and occasional forays into history. Though understandable, since these seem to allow for more direct understanding of what’s wrong with the world and what to do about it, it creates a man with a rather inhuman, incomplete, and unpleasant outlook. The worst offenders, and I won’t specify them, are those who revel in outrage porn and finding the most degenerate news stories and social trends they can find, then blogging or podcasting about them, as though it’s something hidden that needs to be exposed. They’re like connoisseurs of crap; when most men would just step around whatever cultural dog turd they come across, these bloggers put it in a jar, label it, and insist on showing the rest of us their collection. Thank you, professor, that is indeed interesting and quite informative. Now, you are going to wash your hands before you eat anything, correct?

This obsession with finding the most dysfunctional people in the Western world and stewing in pots of outrage porn, besides being unpleasant, demoralises those who spend too much time on it, and likely contributes to the fairly high rate of burnout among online Reactionaries. A man of the Right should, of course, be aware of what’s going on in the broader culture he lives in, but he should spend more time on the beautiful than the ugly. Spend more time, much more time, on the beautiful, if only for your own sake. As I’ve discussed twice before, in “The Moral Dimension of Judging Art” and “An Experiment in Fandom Criticism,” too much bad art is unhealthy both spiritually and mentally; good art is healthy in both senses.

As for the practical aspect, the arts may have less immediate application than history or politics, but a well-rounded man will have some familiarity with both realms. No lesser thinker than Aristotle, besides writing foundational work on ethics, politics, and metaphysics, devoted an entire book to poetry, with the straightforward title The Poetics, which is still essential reading for anyone interested in literature.

Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_WGA19232

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An Experiment in Fandom Criticism

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “What’s Up with Anime Fans?” In short, I considered why anime and its fandom make some people, including some of its own fans, uncomfortable, and concluded that the problem isn’t anime in itself so much as the culture surrounding it, and that the fandom’s awkwardness is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. I still agree with most of that post, but it raises a couple broader questions that may be worth considering. First, can we judge a medium by its fans? Second, can we judge a person’s character by the media he consumes?

First, we should recognise that though the quality of art isn’t as objective or precise as, say, mathematics or the natural sciences, this does not mean that it is completely subjective and unarguable. The simplest criteria we can use to judge the quality of a work is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to do. If it’s a comedy, does it make the audience laugh? If a tragedy, does it give a sense of catharsis? Responses will vary, of course – humour in particular is notoriously subjective – but things become clearer if we examine why a work succeeds or not. Is the plot coherent, the characters believable, the spectacle artful? Taken together, did the various parts of the work each contribute to the intended effect? Should any of the parts be removed, did anything need to be added?

Furthermore, there is a moral dimension to judging art. The best works uplift the audience in some way. This certainly does not mean having an explicit moral; in fact, explicitness is often counter-productive. Compare the uplifting but enjoyable Lord of the Rings to the preachy, unbearable Uncle Tom’s Cabin.…

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What’s the Appeal of Mishima Yukio?

SFA222007830A while back, while visiting a friend of mine, I mentioned having recently re-watched Paul Schrader’s fascinating biographical film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He had never heard of Mishima Yukio, and after explaining that he’s famous as one of Japan’s greatest novelists and infamous for committing suicide in spectacular fashion in 1970, he asked why I had such obvious admiration for a man who committed suicide, which, being a faithful Catholic, I consider to be an inherently evil action.

It’s a fair question, and one that I could have dodged by saying I just like his novels. I certainly do love his novels, but that isn’t what first attracted me to his work. Rather, my first exposure to him came in my days as a college-age delinquent. He was one of a handful of authors in the university library’s small section for Japanese language and literature, and since I didn’t have a lot of time I grabbed the shortest book there, Sun and Steel.…

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